What about gods?
Naturalistic Pagans may be atheists, pantheists, or even animists. Not all Naturalistic Pagans use theistic language, but some do. The use of “god language” by non-theists can be confusing. Some feel that we should “say what we mean” and avoid theistic language altogether. However, other Naturalistic Pagans feel that to surrender all theistic language to literalist demands is to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Both the heart and the head need to be satisfied. In religion, the evocative power of language is at least as important, if not more, than semantic precision. As B. T. Newberg explains:
“The imagination must be captivated and transformed by a vision, not of what one is not, but of what one is or could be. This missing element may be embodied in symbols that remind, invite, and inspire. The individual must be able to interact imaginatively with the symbols in ritual or meditation, and fill them up as it were with experience and affect. At that point, when they are charged with personal meaning and emotion, they may become powerful motivators of thought and behavior. They radiate the power to transform.”
Some Naturalistic Pagans have found that use of theistic language in a ritual context is more productive of certain kinds of religious experience than non-theistic language. For one thing, the word “god” or “gods” is embedded in a complex web of cultural associations. This is precisely why many Naturalistic Pagans discard such language (especially when those associations are negative), but it is also a good reason for retaining “god language”. Such language is laden with emotional resonance (both positive and negative) and has unique potential to evoke powerful emotions of a special character. Because the word “god” lacks an objective referent, it is like a container that can be filled with many different meanings. Whatever goes in the container takes on the qualities associated with the word, including a sense of sacredness, a relationship to what is of “ultimate concern” (Tillich), and moral power.
In addition, much of “god language” is anthropomorphic. Again, this is another reason why some Naturalistic Pagans avoid it: anthropomorphism can lead to anthropocentrism. But anthropomorphic language is useful to Naturalistic Pagans because it stimulates different parts of the brain than non-anthropomorphic language. Anthropomorphic language tends to activate the regions of the brain associated with sociality and relationship, in contrast to the part of the brain that processes objects and abstractions. This is why we have a different experience in response to words like “God” or “Goddess” than we do to more abstract or impersonal words like “Being” or “Nature.” We experience “Goddess” as a “Thou” rather than an “It” — to use Martin Buber’s terms — even when we are using the word to mean an impersonal Nature. As a result, we become open to a kind of relationship with nature that would have been impossible had we used more objective language, and we become more susceptible to the life-transforming religious experiences that flow from that relationship.